Earlier this year, a litigation and research group at the National Law University in India’s capital New Delhi revealed that 65% of the total death sentences by trial courts in the country involved sexual offenses in 2020.
Despite the study, legal experts believe that more social reforms, good education, women’s empowerment can help reduce the high number of rape cases because the death penalty is counterproductive as a deterrent.
The study found that there were 404 death row convicts in the country in 2020, accounting for 65% of all inmates, with the highest number, 59, in the northern Uttar Pradesh state.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, a total of 32,033 cases were reported in the country in 2019, with an average of around 88 cases each day.
“At the government level, regular gender and anti-patriarchal training and sensitisation of investigating agencies in cases of sexual offenses are required,” Supreme Court lawyer Rebecca Mammen John told Anadolu Agency.
She believes that all members of the executive and judicial branches, including the bureaucracy, judges, police officers, and others, require continuous gender sensitisation courses.
“It is important that we remove the burden of fighting for basic rights off women’s shoulders and instead focus on holding institutions accountable and responsive to the needs and aspirations of women,” John added.
The demand for the death penalty in situations of sexual offenses, John said “allows the state to posture as fighting for women’s rights”.
In the clamour for the death penalty, the harder work of addressing the root causes of sexual violence, including ending patriarchal mindsets, gender sensitisation, and empowerment for women and other minorities, slides under the radar, she said.
Class and caste
Rebecca also claims that the death penalty is “unequally applied and differs based on class and caste”.
Poorer accused persons often do not have adequate legal representation, she said and added: “Studies have shown that people who were sentenced to death were not defended adequately in lower courts.”
On why the death penalty has not deterred rape cases, which are on the rise, John said studies have shown the same result. “Dozens of studies across the world have shown that the death penalty is not a deterrent to the commission of crimes, including in cases of rape. There is no evidence to suggest that the death penalty acted as deterrence,” she said.
As both crimes are punishable by death, it could act as an “incentive” for criminals to commit murder in a rape case in order to destroy evidence, she opined.
Another Supreme Court lawyer, M R Shamshad, claimed that the death penalty was rarely used for general sexual offenses.
For brutal sexual offenses against minors, however, and “exceptionally rare cases of brutal sexual behaviour coupled with the murder of the victims, this sentence is awarded,” he explained.
“Considering the vast population of India, the number of death sentences every year cannot be a determining factor,” he said adding: “In recent times, awareness and sensitisation of such crime have also contributed in some expedition in such criminal trials.”
He noted that the death penalty could “only be a component of overall deterrence”.
He said there were other factors, including the quality of a person’s basic education and awareness about the consequences of crime. “Many of them are missing in our very large population,” he said.
When asked about alternatives to the death penalty for reducing rape incidents in the country, Shamshad argued that a “bigger solution” could be achieved through social reforms and the provision of high-quality education.
Strong legal regulatory rules and punitive sentencing will never help in the prevention of such crimes, he added.
Increasing the number of judges, according to the legal expert, is also important to relieve pressure on the country’s judicial system.
The Ministry of Law and Justice submitted a written response to parliament in September of last year, stressing that drastic police reforms are required to restore accountability. The lawyer emphasised that the system must handle all of these factors.